May Day: Occupy the art movement (chapter two)

Spring is in full swing and Occupy has exploded back on the scene with impressive May Day demonstrations. As a movement which unites an incredible array of (sometimes conflicting, but that’s part of the beauty) agendas under the inclusive umbrella of the 99%, it has been uniquely effective in staying on message: Occupy isn’t going anywhere. Or perhaps: it is going to be everywhere.

What’s always been striking about the movement (as we noted in our previous post on Occupy’s aesthetic beginnings, linked below) is its focused attention on creating visually powerful moments that appeal to the heart and linger in the mind. From the start it has adopted a sophisticated, multifaceted approach to protest that is informed by contemporary art, design, and social media as much as it is by socio-economic theory and political action. While we can’t pretend to be able to cover all of the visual, performative, and often subversive mass media tactics that Occupy has deployed over the past weeks and months, we can offer a selection of some of the more intriguing arts-related articles and images that have surfaced in our news feeds over recent days. To a limited extent, we’ll try to update this post with fresh links and images as they emerge during what we’ll call OWS Chapter Two.

But first, we’d like to discuss this somewhat sensationally titled article by BBC News, “Does Occupy signal the death of contemporary art?”

Written by an economics editor, Paul Mason, the article makes an excellent case for Occupy’s lasting significance, yet misses the mark with regard to its relationship to contemporary art by suggesting one could replace the other. We’d propose instead that Occupy is an extremely important movement within contemporary art—more like a slap in the face of certain kinds of art being made today (see below), rather than the death blow to all contemporary art that isn’t born out of Occupy.

This poster makes reference to Damien Hirst’s infamous diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God, produced in 2007. It was offered for sale at 50 million pounds, the highest price ever asked for a single work by a living artist. Intentionally controversial, the skull has since become emblematic of the extreme cynicism and commercialism that can exist behind established systems of contemporary art production and distribution. 

We’d also argue with the somewhat simplistic list of visual characteristics Mason gives for the Occupy zeitgeist: “Posters with artistic rather than strictly graphic design values are the norm”? Not that we’ve seen—and what does that mean anyway? The article fares better where it generalizes some of the recurring themes of the movement, such as: “rejection of commercialism”, “a focus on mass, collaborative subversion of mainstream imagery”, and “art with a social purpose”. To this we’d add the effective utilization of crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Kickstarter, and a sophisticated understanding of the power of memes (remember Pepper-Spray Cop?), branding (the leveraging of the 99% concept, the co-opting of multinational brands to Occupy’s purposes), and visually impactful, even poetic, performances (flying tents in Berkeley, river of light across the Brooklyn Bridge) in creating culturally resonant images with staying power. As guerrila projection superhero Mark Read is quoted as saying, “A lot of the work coming out of Occupy is not concerned with how it will be perceived by a buying public. It’s not designed to be bought, but shared—it’s designed to be made available as widely as possible…. The art itself is super ‘copyleft’.” (Definition of “copyleft” here.)

Pinning down specific visual characteristics is tricky because, much like other movements such as Conceptualism and Feminist Art, Occupy is an expression of a constellation of ideas, and ideals, rather than an exploration of a particular style, method, or mode of seeing. Thus, a distillation of visual characteristics, while possible to a certain extent (yes—much of the art from Occupy is inspired by and resembles the rich visual history and style of protest posters and revolutionary graphics from around the world), may never be complete. One can say less about what Feminist Art looks like than what it expresses, and the same applies to the art of OWS.

Lest anyone think that being labeled an artistic movement dimishes Occupy, think again. Historically, the most radical artistic movements (Impressionism, Futurism, Dada, Expressionism, Feminist Art, Conceptualism, to name just a few)—many of which were themselves political in origin—have done no less than to signal and/or effect sweeping, permanent changes in the way the world sees its present, its past, and its possible futures.

Accompanying the above article is this nicely done video, which succeeds in capturing the artistic spirit behind Occupy, here
Follow The Illuminator to receive updates and images of their striking guerilla projections, here

Artlog’s best protest signs from OWS’s May Day demonstrations in NYC, here

Occupy uses the power of the infographic to make socio-economic inequities visible:
Forbes article on infograffiti from May Day, here
For background: “Some Say OWS Protesters Aimless; Facts Say Otherwise” also on Forbes
More background: infographic from Fast Company, “Who is Occupy Wall Street?”
Final background: fascinating infographic, “How OWS Unfolded Online”, from bullshit not included
Final final background: OWS Structural/Network Schematic (work in progress), from Occupy With Art

We’ve posted on Occupy George before; here’s another article on the infographic-printed dollar bills
See our previous post, “The Aesthetics of Protest: How Occupy Sees Itself (chapter one)” for more infographics and posters (with both art and graphic design values), here

Art strike: “Occupy is Back!”: Hyperallergic covers May Day at Union Square, with images, here
The Nation live blogs Occupy events all over the US on May 1st, with images and videos, here
And lastly, a clear-eyed, unflinching look at some of the contradictions within Occupy’s demands of the art world, by Brian Sherwin for Fine Art Views—it will be interesting to see how these contradictions will be dealt with and resolved (or not, which we think would be to Occupy’s peril), here

Links added May 4th, 2012:

Occupy-inspired event: here in Toronto, the CONTACT Photography Festival—largest of its kind in the world—is about to begin. The festival theme this year? PUBLIC: Collective Identity /Occupied Spaces. See website for more information on what looks to be an exciting series of exhibitions, here

Related to the photo at the top of this post, a recent survey by Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E) reveals great inequities in how artists are compensated for their work for various nonprofit arts organizations in New York City: see it here

In Canada, government-mandated artists fees were instituted by the Canadian Artists Representation/le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC) in the late 1960s: find out more here

Links and images added May 10th, 2012:

In Protest took place May 9th at the Berkeley Art Museum, an event for which The Kadist Art Foundation, in collaboration with BAM/PFA, invited politically inclined artists and writers to make a protest poster that addresses specific events or generalized demands. Attendees could view the results, join some of the artists in a wide-ranging conversation of protest, and take home a poster. Featuring posters designed by artists such as John Baldessari and Martha Rosler, as well as Zarouhie Abdalian, Amy Balkin, Dodie Bellamy, Charlie Dubbe, Amy Franceschini, Doug Hall, Kevin Killian, Paul Kos, Tony Labat, Shaun O’Dell, Rigo 23, Piero Golia, Jordan Kantor, Allan Sekula, Mungo Thomson and Natasha Wheat. (We’d love to see some of the posters—if you know where to find them, let us know!) More info on the event here

Art is My Occupation (AMO) offers direct support to artists and cultural workers dedicated to advancing the stories, struggles and ideas of the 99%. From visual art to music to public interventions to videos to street theatre and more, AMO aims to create a national network of artists focused on exposing the real costs of the current crisis and envisioning a future that puts people before profits. More at


The Illuminator, Workers of the World Unite guerilla projection in New York, May Day
Rob Cicetti for Hyperallergic, 1% poster featuring Hirst’s diamond skull and Art Strike banner in
Union Square, NYC
General Strike chalk art in Oscar Grant Plaza (Bay Area) by Justin Beck (@pixplz)
Occupy Everywhere (West Oakland) photo by Dawn Danby

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